Why They Heart Keynes
| Peter Klein |
Keynesianism has conquered the hearts and minds of politicians and ordinary people alike because it provides a theoretical justification for irresponsible behavior. Medical science has established that one or two glasses of wine per day are good for your long-term health, but no doctor would recommend a recovering alcoholic to follow this prescription. Unfortunately, Keynesian economists do exactly this. They tell politicians, who are addicted to spending our money, that government expenditures are good. And they tell consumers, who are affected by severe spending problems, that consuming is good, while saving is bad. In medicine, such behaviour would get you expelled from the medical profession; in economics, it gives you a job in Washington.
Three comments: First, the “hangover” metaphor, while not exactly accurate, is an effective way to communicate the basics of the Mises-Hayek malinvestment theory of the business cycle. Use it! Second, Zingales’s description applies equally well to the 1930s and 1940s, when the Keynesian consensus emerged. It’s important to remember that massive deficit spending to “cure” the Depression began with Hoover and Roosevelt in the early 1930s, long before the General Theory appeared. Keynes’s book did not propose a new direction for economic policy; it provided an allegedly scientific rationale for policies already in place, policies government officials were eager to defend and protect. (The use of expansionary fiscal and monetary policy to increase output had long been derided by serious economists as nonsense, as the domain of “monetary cranks” and other snake-oil salesmen).
Third, the Keynesian delusion afflicts not only policymakers, but professional economists as well. I’ve long suspected that the appeal of Keynes to people like Krugman and DeLong is ultimately based on aesthetic, not scientific, grounds. Deep in their hearts, they just don’t like private property, markets, and individual choice. They don’t think ordinary people are capable of making wise decisions and think they, the elites, should be in charge. They resent the fact that most people don’t want their lives controlled by liberal intellectuals. Technical arguments about the effectiveness of monetary and fiscal policy, the relationship between aggregate demand and output, the experience of the 1930s, and the like are really beside the point. For Keynesian economists, the belief that markets are naturally unstable in the absence of government planning is a matter of faith.